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Clinical Center's Alter Wins Lasker

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The Clinical Center's Dr. Harvey J. Alter received the 2000 Lasker Award for clinical medical research during ceremonies in New York City on Sept. 22.

He shares the award with Dr. Michael Houghton, a scientist with Chiron Corp. It honors Alter's ongoing studies to uncover the causes and reduce the risks of transfusion-associated hepatitis and Houghton's continuing work in molecular biology to isolate the hepatitis C virus.


Dr. Harvey J. Alter

An NIH grantee was among four other scientists honored by 2000 Lasker Awards: Dr. Alexander Varshavsky of the California Institute of Technology, who shared with two other researchers the Lasker Award for basic medical research, has been supported by NIGMS, NCI and NIDDK, which was his major funder through a MERIT Award. Varshavsky, along with Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, were honored "for discovery and recognition of the broad significance of the ubiquitin system of regulated protein degradation, a fundamental process that influences vital cellular events including the cell cycle, malignant transformation and responses to inflammation and immunity."

The sixth Lasker honoree this year is Dr. Sydney Brenner of the Molecular Sciences Institute, who won the Lasker Award for special achievement in medical science for 50 years of creativity exemplified by his legendary work on the genetic code, and for introducing the roundworm as a system for tracing the fate of every cell in a living creature.

But it was Alter's honor that created most excitement on campus.

"Dr. Alter's studies of hepatitis have tremendously benefited the nation's public health efforts in the arena of blood safety," said Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, NIH acting director. "His work spans 35 years of creativity, focus and tenacity."

"What makes the Lasker Award so special is the scientific stature and eminence of the people who nominated and elected me to be the recipient," said Alter on his selection. "That such individuals would recognize my work as important and clinically significant is by far the highest honor I could achieve.

"Clinical research seems motivated by three major elements: the desire to understand the causes and mechanisms of disease, the wish to do something that will have genuine relevance to patient care and the hope that the science will merit the respect of other scientists. The first two elements are to some extent under the scientists's control, but the latter is ephemeral and perhaps the hardest to achieve.

With Alter (r) following the awards ceremony are Dr. Michael Houghton (l), director of non-A, non-B hepatitis research at Chiron Corp., and Dr. Joseph Goldstein, chairman of the department of molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who headed the Lasker awards.

"Just as a study has limited relevance until it is peer reviewed, so too does a scientific life. The Lasker Award is validation at a level that I never anticipated and I cherish it. It is peer review that fortunately requires no corrections or re-submissions. My level of gratitude is significant at a P-value that approaches infinity."

"He is a model for the clinical scientist," said Dr. John I. Gallin, Clinical Center director. "He has been a leader in the effort to improve blood safety, and his investigations have been instrumental in the virtual elimination of transfusion-associated hepatitis in the United States."

Alter is chief of the infectious diseases section and associate director of research in the CC department of transfusion medicine (DTM). A native of New York City, he earned the M.D. degree at the University of Rochester. He came to the Clinical Center as a senior investigator in 1969.

"As a young research fellow, Dr. Alter co-discovered the Australia antigen, a key to detecting hepatitis B virus," noted Dr. Harvey Klein, chief of DTM. "For many investigators that would be the highlight of a career. For Dr. Alter it was only an auspicious beginning."

Thirty years ago, about a third of transfused people received tainted blood, which later inflamed their livers, producing a condition known as hepatitis. To combat this problem, Alter spearheaded a project at the Clinical Center that created a storehouse of blood samples used to uncover the causes and reduce the risk of transfusion-associated hepatitis. Because of his work, the United States instituted blood and donor screening programs that have served to increase the safety of the blood supply.

Alter used this repository of clinically linked blood samples to identify another puzzling clinical problem. "Most transfusion-related hepatitis was found to be due to a virus different from the two then-known hepatitis agents, A and B," he said. He called this new form of hepatitis non-A, non-B hepatitis and subsequently proved through transmission studies in chimpanzees that it was due to a new agent.

Vigorous efforts in dozens of laboratories failed to identify the presumptive virus or develop a test for it. Eventually, a Chiron Corp. team led by Houghton exploited the blossoming methods of molecular biology to isolate the virus now known as the hepatitis C virus.

The Lasker Awards, first presented in 1946 and often called America's Nobels, annually honor the country's most outstanding contributions in basic and clinical medical research. The awards are administered by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation; the late Mary Lasker is widely recognized for her contribution to the growth of NIH and her commitment to biomedical research.

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